Swaziland: Trade Unionist Dies in Custody

The ITUC joins the ITUC-Africa and its affiliates in its strongest denunciation of the suspicious death in custody of Sipho Jele, member of the Swaziland Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union (SAPWU) and the People’s United Demoractic Movement (PUDEMO), Swaziland’s largest opposition party, which was banned and is being relentlessly persecuted under the government’s notorious Suppression of Terrorism Act. Swaziland has been living under a State of Emergency since 1973.

On 1 May, the workers’ celebrations held at the Salesian Sports grounds in Manzini, Swaziland’s main industrial town, were violently interrupted by the police, who were insisting on the removal of all guests whom they considered not to be workers. They disrupted the peaceful May Day celebration and manhandled and detained several officers of the unions, including Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) National Executive Committee member Simangele Mmema. They confiscated photographic equipment and deleted photographs. They looked for participants wearing PUDEMO T-shirts and even detained a youth activist for wearing a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) T-shirt and an African National Congress (ANC) cap, which they confiscated. The unions publicly protested against this overt anti-union harassment and the interruption of their peaceful May Day celebrations.

It was under these circumstances that Sipho Stephen Jele was arrested by the police for wearing a T- shirt with the name of PUDEMO on it. On his arrest the police took him to his home, where according to his aunt, they searched the house and found nothing else than Jele’s PUDEMO membership card. He was forced to have his picture taken showing this card before being taken away. Two days later, the correctional services department made an announcement claiming that Sipho Stephen Jele committed suicide in the toilet of a prison cell.

According to information received by the ITUC, the police have exerted pressure on Jele’s family for him to be quickly buried. Furthermore, the inquiry appointed by the Prime Minister of Swaziland is being done by the police’s own correctional service staff. Given the circumstances under which Jele was arrested and the way he was treated under custody, the ITUC fears that he was killed because of his activism.

Swazi King Mswati has previously stated he sees “akukhanywane”, a term used to describe the throttling of all those defying his rule, as the most appropriate strategy. In the meantime, Sipho Jele’s death is the 12th stabbing or shooting incident of PUDEMO members, leaders, family or sympathizers since August 2003.

See also the spotlight interview with Mduduzi C. Gina (SFTU - Swaziland)

For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018

Photo: Raverken